Watch the origin of money playing out in real-time in Cyprus

Credit-backed money could be passed around the nation after the implementation of capital controls.

The origins of money are frequently fought over. Classical economics textbooks frequently cite the idea of a barter economy switching to money for the efficiency gains. Adam Smith, in 1776, was well aware of the problems with barter economies, writing that:

One man, we shall suppose, has more of a certain commodity than he himself has occasion for, while another has less. The former consequently would be glad to dispose of, and the latter to purchase, a part of this superfluity. But if this latter should chance to have nothing that the former stands in need of, no exchange can be made between them.

The problem is, that didn't happen. David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5000 Years contains a pretty thorough demolition of the idea, noting that no anthropologist ever has found a pre-monetary society which operates a barter economy in that fashion. A few societies which have lost money for other reasons have reverted to barter, but that's a whole different thing.

Instead, Graeber writes, money arose from debt. Its first role is as a unit of account, a way of tabulating that the person who you lent a cow owes you something; then, as the amount of outstanding debt in society grows, those IOUs become tradable, and eventually standardised. You can even see that on British bank notes – they are, strictly speaking, promissory notes, representing not a sum of money, but a sum of debt. "I promise to pay the bearer, on demand…" reads the text on the front.

And now, as David Keohane excerpts over at FT Alphaville, we could be seeing that route to money creation re-occurring in Cyprus. Citi's William Buiter writes that the capital controls imposed on the country:

Will, if they persist for more than a few weeks, likely lead to a search for alternative media of exchange for internal transactions. IOUs of large, respected enterprises could for example be countersigned and start to circulate more widely as media of exchange and means of payment. This was the case, for instance, during the 1970 bank strike in Ireland, uncleared cheques were made negotiable (like bills of exchange) and pubs and shops served as credit verifiers. These could later develop into more full-fledged parallel currencies, if internal euro liquidity in Cyprus remains very scarce.

It's also another example of how private money creation – à la Bitcoin and so many other initiatives – isn't that new or trendy at all. But the problem for groups of citizens making their own private money is that eventually they have to contend with a government.

That's not, as some of the more alarmist bitcoiners and goldbugs would have it, because the Government comes in and seizes your money if you start to rival its power. (That said, most countries do have laws on the books preventing you from minting your own coinage.) It's the more prosaic matter of taxes.

Governments have the power to demand payment of taxes in whatever currency they want – and usually, the currency they control. So while private money might grow relatively sizeable in Cyprus, no matter how organised it gets, people will always need to hold onto euros – and Bitcoin is going to struggle to get a foothold as a "real" currency if you need to convert back to pounds every April to pay HMRC.

Still, one of the few fun things about living in these interesting times is that those of us who know basic economics get to watch our textbooks played out in front of us. Northern Rock was a bank run with real queues outside the front of the building; Bitcoin lets us have a more up-to-date example of a speculator's bubble than tulip madness; and now we're seeing the origin of money in real-time.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.